As the pioneer and historical face of desegregation in sports, Jackie Robinson experienced taunts and death threats at every point of his Major League career as the first black player admitted to the league.
His bravery and persistence in the name of equal rights have been well-documented and honored not just in baseball history, but in the larger context of the struggle to end the disparate treatment of black citizens endemic to American institutions.
But Robinson’s success, in no slight to his considerable achievement, came as the result of the road paved by many less-celebrated predecessors, who, through their careers in the Negro Leagues, brought a resolve and speed to the game unmatched by their Major League counterparts.
In the shadow of Jackie Robinson’s legacy are the efforts of Andrew “Rube” Foster, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, having earned the title of “the father of black baseball.”
Known to few modern-day baseball fans, Foster sought to ensure that black players were given the due attention and compensation they had long been denied in “separate but equal” America.
No individual before Foster or since has been as instrumental in legitimizing black baseball both internally and in the eyes of the fans and media. His achievements, though largely disregarded at the time, were integral in eventually affording all black players the right to play in the Major League.
For example, Foster quietly broke a baseball color barrier almost four decades prior to Jackie Robinson, playing with a semi-pro mixed-race squad out of Otsego, Michigan. Most notably, Foster served as the star pitcher for the Philadelphia X-Giants, pitching four of the team’s five wins in a contest dubbed the “colored championship of the world” in 1903.
In his era and in the decades following, Foster’s success on the mound was virtually unmatched. For instance, the current MLB record for most consecutive wins by a pitcher stands at 24 by the New York Giants’ Car Hubbell, whose streak ended on May 31,1937.
Foster won 44 games in a row three decades prior in 1902.
But as compelling as Foster’s accomplishments on the diamond were, it was his contributions to the game after his playing days that continue to endure almost a century later.
Foster’s goal was simple: Turn the largely overlooked black baseball leagues into a legitimate, respectable, and sustainable organization.
Before his involvement in league management, the black baseball leagues were deemed inferior — if they were considered at all. Yet Foster’s blueprint for a unified organization ushered in a new era that would prove crucial in eroding the Major League’s color barrier.
In 1911, a great step was taken toward legitimizing black baseball as Foster negotiated a partnership with the Comiskey family of Chicago to use the White Sox ballpark for his new team. With a premiere venue and the team’s marketable aggressive style of play, the newly-formed Chicago American Giants skyrocketed in popularity, leading his once-marginalized club to draw more fans than the neighboring Cubs and White Sox.
Following the success of his own team, Foster immediately set his goal higher, aiming to help elevate all black players, not just those on his team.
In 1919, as his city of Chicago was embroiled in race riots, Foster felt a sense of urgency to unify black baseball players in one league. He wrote regularly in the Chicago Defender of the need for a league that would “create a profession that would equal the earning capacity of any other profession … keep Colored baseball from the control of whites [and] do something concrete for the loyalty of the Race.”
Gathering the owners of unaffiliated teams, Foster held a meeting at the Kansas City YMCA and shared his vision. The next year, on Feb. 13, 1920, the Negro National League was created, with Foster serving as both president and treasurer.
As other regions developed, they followed in Foster’s footsteps and established their own leagues for black players, serving as an economic boon not just for the players and front office, but for black communities as well.
Sadly, Foster’s oversight would prove to be short-lived as health issues forced him to step away from overseeing the burgeoning league he had created. But that didn’t end the progress he started.
Even though Negro Leagues shuttered due to the Great Depression and lack of leadership, many teams would return under the banner of the Negro American League in 1937. It was this organization that served as the springboard for Jackie Robinson to make his legendary inroads to Major League Baseball.
While Jackie Robinson remains a civil rights icon, desegregating baseball is an act that no one man can lay claim to. Rube Foster’s legacy may not be as well known as Robinson’s, but his efforts helped ensure equality not just for Jackie Robinson, but every black player who has played Major League baseball since.